New Zealand String Quartet – Soundscapes 2024 – and all good wishes to Monique Lapins

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:

CLAIRE COWAN – Celestia-Terralia
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 14
DEBUSSY – String Quartet

Helene Pohl (violin, leader), Monique Lapins (violin),
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

MOZART- String Quintet in B-flat K.174 Finale
(with Peter Clark, violin, and Monique Lapins, viola)

St.Mary-of-the-Angels Church,
Boulcott St., Wellington

Wednesday 15th May 2024

What a beautiful venue for a concert! St. Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington has played host to the New ZeaIand String Quartet on numerous occasions over the years; and while I’ve found that a seat near the front works ideally well in terms of the music-making’s clarity, there’s also an attractive bloom to the sound which conveys something of the character of the surroundings in truly memorable fashion. And if for whatever reason one arrives with little time to spare and is relegated to a place further from the performers than one would like, then there are both visual and sonic compensations for the proportionate diminution of absolute clarity, even if the sounds which can still reach beyond the heart of the nave are best made by choral voices or the solo organ!

Fortunately I was able to get a seat near the front, close enough to even make out the welcoming remarks of Aislinn Ryan, the Quartet’s general manager, here deprived of a sonorously amplified voice by a vagrant microphone, but still managing to convey suitably heartfelt greetings to all of us. The pre-concert publicity had already alerted most of us present to the occasion’s most piquant feature, this being one of second violinist Monique Lapins’ final appearances with the Quartet after eight years of membership before moving on to other artistic ventures, and the introduction of her replacement, Peter Clark, via a ”special item” at the concert’s end – so the event had a distinction of its own to add on that score.

A programme had been chosen to reflect the Quartet’s wide-ranging strands of musical activity within its particular genre, including a contemporary New Zealand work. a string quartet classic and a mainstay of twentieth-century quartet-writing – and though any from the classical “triumvirate” of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven weren’t included in this survey, amends were made by the inclusion of the “Peter Clark introductory piece” at the concert’s end, more of which to come.

Auckland composer Claire Cowan’s music for me never fails to strike sparks with each encounter; and I was grateful to the NZSQ for giving me the chance to catch up with one of her latest pieces, the visionary “Celestia-Terralia”, a kind of meditation for string quartet on the relationship of our world to the vistas of space through which we ceaselessly move, stunningly rendered in sonic terms by this other-worldly exploration of life’s extremes.

In their introduction to the work the players mentioned the composer’s initial fascination with the historic 1957 Russian space probe that sent a live dog into space to orbit the earth, a venture which was then motivated as much by political gain as scientific advancement in what had become a “space race” between the USSR and the USA. (The dog, who was known as “Laika”, actually made several orbits of the earth, but within a few hours sadly died as a result of overheating in the spacecraft.)

At the beginning the sounds presented a kind of technological minimalist character of beeps, blips and other kinds of warning signals, setting up a tangibly propulsive character that suggested some kind of voyage, with an occasional legato-like phrase that could have signified a rather more living, organic presence! These chattering pulses then became wave-like motions, the harmonic-like timbres intensifying a hypnotic other-worldly effect. Again the trajectories suddenly changed, reverting to the opening figures but occasionally breaking without warning into almost “square-dancing quatrains”, everything scampering onwards until the music’s energies finally seemed to ‘cut adrift” and float, punctuated by huge viola-drops of sound and scampering ‘cello-pizzicati mutterings – from then on, the piece with its extraordinarily spacious harmonies took on an elegiac and trance-like character with an intense, austere beauty, haunted by an underlying sense of loss…..

Somewhat more earthly than all of this, but in no sense less epic or emotionally far-reaching was the programme’s next item, Shostakovich’s Fourteenth String Quartet, dedicated by the composer to the cellist, Sergei Shirinsky, a member of the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that gave the premiere performances of all but the first and last of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets. It was the last of a set of four quartets (Nos 11-14) each of which was dedicated to a member of the ensemble, in this case featuring the ’cello in a pivotal role throughout.

After a kind of “Once upon a time” introduction by the viola, the cello took the music’s reins and brought in a droll playfulness, realised here with gusto by Rolf Gjelsten, and taken up by the violins, the music’s characterisations here physically enhanced by three of the group’s “standing to play”, an NZSQ trademark I’ve always relished! Throughout, the two violins gladly followed the cello’s dance-like framework, but as well occasionally pushed their timbres into agitato mode, goading “cello and viola into responsive bouts of the same – but then I loved Gillian Ansell’s viola impassioned “reading of the riot act” solo which prompted both cello and violins to take up the dancing playfulness once more! And with what eloquence did the cello here combine recitative and dance with which to gather up its companions for some jogtrot concordance at the movement’s end!

Helene Pohl’s beautiful violin solo began the second movement, supported by her colleagues and encouraged to extend the instrument’s reverie as well as beautifully descanting the cello’s entry, furthering what had become something of an extended duo for the pair, piquantly decorated by tender pizzicato from second violin and viola! When all four finally joined bowed forces again it was Monique Lapins’ instrument’s turn to shine, further in keeping with the dark beauties of what we had heard thus far in this deeply-felt movement. After further musings from the first violin, a pizzicato passage suddenly became animated (sounding the notes which spell the affectionate form of the name of the work’s dedicatee, “Seryozha” (for Sergei Shirinsky) and the Allegretto was thus made to spring almost miraculously from these relatively comatose soundscapes!

Suddenly here were raw, stridently burgeoning utterances being tossed around between the instruments rather like a twelve-tone exercise with “attitude”, searing and sharp-edged, variously in stepwise, triplet and running aspect before subsiding, the cello quietly quoting the opening of Katerina’s aria “Seryozha, khoroshiy moy” from Act 4 of the composer’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and both second and first violins ruminating over their exhausting troubles! After all this had run its course, how blessed were those calmly stoic concluding phrases! What a work and what a performance!

This left still another quartet masterpiece to work its spell upon our sensibilities (a cup that runneth over!) – in our somewhat fraught state as listeners by this time (in the wake of the Shostakovich work) I felt it would be such a joy to relish a piece of music whose qualities put one in mind of those piano concertos referred to by Mozart in a letter to his father as “works that both connoisseurs and ordinary people would equally enjoy, the former because they would both delight in and understand the music’s many felicities, and the latter because they would enjoy the music equally well, but without fully knowing why!” I was certainly anticipating the full tactile enjoyment of Debussy’s sound-world in his only String Quartet and certainly wasn’t disappointed!

What arresting contrasts we were straightaway presented with in this performance by the point and focus of the opening phrases of the work and the subsequent swirling masses of finely-crafted diaphanous detailing which followed! My proximity to the quartet enabled me to appreciate as much the beautifully ambient support of the middle voices surrounding the principle lines, whatever their source. The players all “sounded” detail in marvellously pliant and spontaneous tones, everything seeming naturally analogue and organic, as if we were all swimming irresistibly through the conduits of a living organism, with sounds seeming to coalesce and dissolve at will, culminating in a wonderfully fashioned-on-the-spot unison!

Just as beguiling at the scherzo’s beginning were the plethora of pizzicato which tumbled over one another with what seemed like infectious delight at the cross-rhythms and their interaction, then contrasting these pin-point accuracies with ear-catching “whisperings’, mere slivers and shavings of tone swept into almost ghostly unanimities punctuated with sforzandi and echoes of uncanny laughter at the insouciance of it all. The third movement, Andatino, doucement expressif, began with a brief solo from Monique Lapins, its beauty uncannily replicated by Gillian Ansell’s viola, all with gorgeously recessed muted tones and played “con amore”. How disarming it feels when hearing such music played with the kind of absorption that “unlocks” an impulse or memory one knows without being able to name! The beautiful viola-playing and the accompanying modal-like chordings here put me in mind of Vaughan Williams’ music for similar forces, the flow of emotion as spontaneous as was its hushed recession at the end….

As for the finale, we enjoyed its wistful launching by the ‘cello into a drifting, peripatetic world, whose sounds seemed inclined towards melting and merging, rather than forward movement – but the players then insinuated, goaded and eventually tumbled the music into vigorous trajectories with its unashamed Cesar Franck-like repetitions, regaling us with oceans of ebb-and-flow before plunging into the return of the work’s opening theme – such a full-blooded and attention-grabbing moment! It seemed by this time we were so transported that, when brought to us by a precipitate coda, Helene Pohl’s final violin ascent to those final chords was both thrilling and tinged with regret on our part that there suddenly wasn’t any more! And what more could one ask of a performance?

I mentioned earlier the exclusion of any music by the accepted “string quartet triumvirate” of composers in the concert – but there was actually a scheduled “extra” piece which in terms of musical content almost compensated entirely for the neglect – this was a movement from one of Mozart’s String Quintets, chosen by the Quartet to feature both the group’s departee, Monique Lapins, and the newcomer, Peter Clark, thereby merging the bitter-sweet process of farewelling and welcoming into a musically-satisfying whole. So there actually WAS some more after the Debussy, the finale of Mozart’s String Quintet in B-flat K.174, played by the ensemble with all of the spirit, feeling and skill of execution that one might expect from these players and within their “moment in time”. The NZSQ has a few of these concerts left in various venues around the country – anybody within coo-ee of any of these occasions would be well-advised on several counts to enjoy what many of us obviously regarded as a very special event.

It remains to say “Vale, Monique Lapins! – Waimarie pai! It has been an honour!”

“A sense of belonging somewhere” – The New Zealand String Quartet’s “Notes from a Journey” on Atoll Records

Notes from a Journey
Atoll Records ACD 118   Vol.1 (2010)
Atoll Records ACD 289  Vol.2 (2023)

The New Zealand String Quartet  –  Helene Pohl, leader / Douglas Beilman (2010), Monique Lapins (2023) violins / Gillian Ansell, viola / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Atoll Records Producer – Wayne Laird / Recording Engineer – Graham Kennedy

Notes from a Journey

is the title of a story in music that reaches a new chapter with the release of a new  (November 2023) CD from Atoll Records, one which furthers the New Zealand String Quartet’s already-impressive commitment to home-grown musical sounds. This present recording echoes a previous, similarly-titled presentation from 2010, and forges links of all kinds in doing so, both through direct connection and ongoing influences upon the works of a younger generation.

The title of these CDs is taken from a 1974 poem by Sam Hunt, one dedicated to fellow-poet Hone Tuwhare, appropriate in that, like a fellow-versifier, these are properly home-spun voices, as are the sounds brought to performance-life by these gifted musicians who feel the “flesh and blood” of the composers’ soundscapes and present it all with such heartfelt intensities…..

The earlier of these two notes from a journey recordings, incidentally, won a Vodafone Award in 2011 as the Best Classical Album of that year, and with a different second violinist in the ensemble, Douglas Beilman, who altogether completed 26 years with the Quartet before moving on in 2015. By this time the group had firmly established its credentials as an advocate of New Zealand music, with previous noteworthy recordings of string quartets by Anthony Watson, Gareth Farr and Helen Fisher, and premiere performances of the String Quartets of Ross Harris. There were also landmark collaborations that featured works by Gillian Whitehead, Jack Body and John Psathas. So, when this first notes from a journey collection appeared, it effectively showcased the expressive and varied flowering of some of the era’s most striking homegrown creative outpourings, as well as confirming the ensemble’s identification with and commitment to these and associated works.

John Psathas’s 1996 work Abhisheka began the first of the two recordings. Psathas’s work takes its title from the Sanskrit word for “anointment”, creating a sinuous and sensual feeling of something ritualistic, singular interactions of sounds with silences which represented a major departure for the composer at that time from what he himself had somewhat ruefully described as “an over-caffeinated style”, here instead opting for contemplative, slowly-paced soundings of tones alternating with wondrously-wrought spaces. There’s interplay between a quartet of voices creating resonating chordal sounds and solo lines, sometimes employing quarter-tones whose unchartered territories set tensions against profundities to wondrous effect. The Quartet gave this work’s premiere in Nelson in 1998, and previously recorded it on a Rattle disc called “Rhythm Spike” – even then something of a “moment of calm” in turbulent seas!

The proverbial modernity of JS Bach’s musical inclinations is given sufficient emphasis in the original Variation 25 from his set of “Goldberg Variations”, a string quartet transcription of which I heard the NZSQ play in its entirety in Lower Hutt an unbelievable decade of years ago, now!  Even to this day the memory of that occasion haunts any subsequent rehearing, be it of the original keyboard version, a transcription or (as here) an evolutionary step-child! Composer Ross Harris in his Variation 25 takes the original’s “immensity of human sorrow” and adroitly finds more refracted expressions of emotion through harmonic tensions and explorations which briefly pit their own momentums against one another in piquant displays of independence which stay in the memory long after order of sorts is restored!

What a pleasure to re-encounter Jack Body’s “Three Transcriptions”!  –  each has a haunting  “presence” by way of capturing the candour of the sound’s “openness”, the first being a Chinese  version of the “Jews’ Harp”  sound in Long GI YI, the harmonics so very plaintive and captivating, and with vocalisings bolstering the persistent rhythms. Ramandriana is a dance from Madagascar, mostly pizzicato, with occasionally piquant “held” bowings to colour the rhythms., all wonderfully complex and often asymmentrical, and marching off so engagingly! If the latter dance was essentially a “plucked-note” one, the last, Ratschenitsa, from Bulgaria, as much emphasised the “bowed” as the “plucked”, with foot-stamping and yelped vocalisings adding to the excitement, as did the 7/8 driving rhythms which constantly bent one’s ears and kept one’s inner trajectories on the boil!

One encounters a number of evocations of a projected “afterlife” in music of all kinds, with Michael Norris’s Exitus here adding a stimulating quartet of contrivances pertaining to different cultures’ view of an afterworld. A composer might conceivably select at random from the manifold cultural examples worldwide of corresponding scenarios, but the four Michael Norris have chosen contrast so markedly both with one another and with archetypal Western concepts of afterlife, the results in themselves are morbidly fascinating, underpinned by the composer’s own sonic imaginings for each.

We began with Quidlivun – The Land of the Moon where, in Inuit mythology, the virtuous are taken to their eternal rest, the soundscape appropriately remote, spare and dry, alternating engagingly animated impulse (new arrivals, perhaps?) with spacious, long-breathed lines which suggest endless, infinitely varied connections. A sudden irruption brought instant relocation to Xibalbá – The Place of Fear, the underworld of Mayan civilisation with the latter’s dominant societal figures of kings who were the intermediateries between humans and gods and wielded absolute power over ordinary people. This meant subjugation to a belief system that, amongst other things , threatened departing souls to Xibalbá with numerous trials and tribulations both on their journey to and throughout the Underworld. Involving delights such as “darkness, cold, fire, razor blades, hungry jaguars and shrieking bats” – long-held string lines punctuated by vicious sforzandi buffetings, eerie sul ponticello-like whip-lashings and poisonously-curdling cries and mutterings.

While the all-out assault was then somewhat relieved by the following  Niflheim – the House of Mists, the oppressiveness of a different kind was just as unrelenting – this was the cold, dark world of the dead ruled by the goddess Hel. I was reminded in places of Sibelius’s similarly bleak and implaccable ambiences in one of his Four Legends, Lemminkainen in Tuonela, except that Michael Norris’s evocation is an even more unequivocally bloodless and lifeless realm “from which no traveller returns” – no Orpheus would seek an Eurydice, nor a mother recover the body parts of her son for reassemblage in such totally unremitting  territories!

After so nihilistic an evocation it was something of a relief to encounter the more positive, dance-like aspect of Oka Lusa Hacha (Black Water River), over which the soul passes to reach the “good hunting grounds” of the native American Choctaw Tribe. Despite readily employing similarly sharp-edged, biting string timbres and tones to the previous evocations, the ritualistic rite of passage depicted had an almost joyous and certainly anticipatory aspect for most of the journey, with even the “log crossing” trial presenting  concentrated, almost positively ritualistic efforts and gesturings rather than the more fearful and despairing earlier depictions!

The disc’s final work, Gareth Farr’s He Poroporoaki (A Farewell) commemorated a premiere for similar forces undertaken at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli in 2008. Upon first hearing, I thought Richard Nunns’ playing of the putatara (conch) and putorino (flute) together with the composer’s sounding of the pahu pounamu (Greenstone gong) conjured up a vividly raw presence which the string lines  sought to “ritualise” in suitably elegiac style. I liked the Vaughan Williams-ish modal sequences which then “framed” the famous “Now is the Hour” melody – but I thought the latter might have been given more “suggestive” treatment rather than played in full and harmonised.I confess to finding the effect here a shade syrupy, but perhaps only because I was expecting more abstracted melodic treatment somewhat along the lines of the disc’s other pieces. A second hearing worried me less, being more along the lines of my thinking ”it is what it is” and accepting it as such.

So – with the sounds of this first recording still ringing in my head I was drawn to make the connection with Notes from a Journey II, recorded thirteen years later by the same Quartet but with a different second violinist, Monique Lapins having taken over from  Douglas Beilman in 2016.

The new disc underlines the journey’s continuation, sharing with the first recording both a title and the work of artist Simon Kaan, with cover art detail from images named as a related series. It began powerfully with a work by Gillian Whitehead, Poroporoaki, dedicated to Richard Nunns, one of the pioneers of the use of Maori instruments (taonga puoro) in composition – this was a stirring imitation of the pūtōrino (trumpet), and went on to imitate other instruments outlined in the text. The transcription powerfully blended ritual with individually characterful voices expressing melodic, rhythmic and specifically timbral sounds in aid of giving breath to the process of farewell.

Gareth Farr’s Te Koanga  is next, an evocation of the title, which means “Planting Season”, and the activities associated with such a time, activities which naturally involve the ritual of work and song for purposes of evocation as much as productivity. The work is as atmospheric and melodic as structural, incorporating the intrinsic value of the presence of birdlife in Wellington’s natural environment – there is a tui’s song enshrined in the detailing as well as contributions from other birds such as the weka. As the piece draws to a close the ambiences bid us a farewell…

Tabea Squire’s piece I Danced, Unseen captivated me on its first hearing – it seemed as though the composer was at first awakening her store of inner voices more than any latent physical urgings, but with the music suddenly enlivened our focus was energised and sharpened, bringing  our sensibilities to their feet! These impulses continue to gravitate from melody to rhythm as the piece progressed until the sounds achieved full bloom as a unified conception, the players’ breathing strongly in evidence in places giving extra palpable energy to the proceedings.

In a different way Ross Harris’s String Quartet No. 9 straightaway compelled one’s attention with the players vocalising as part of the “chorale” motif which itself underwent as profound a journey as did the “episodes” which each chorale rendition introduced. Beginning as inwardly glowing blocks of sound, the chorale vocalisations stimulated increasingly colourful, discursive and exploratory variants of the same, alternating between gestures whose thrusting and angular aspects coruscated with what sounded like irruptions of both col legno and sul ponticello timbres,  the players swapping pizzicato and arco techniques at will  (as if opening and closing a kind of a Pandora’s Box of bombardment!). These energies eventually dissipated into independent  phrases and single notes, with the chorale “released “ to the strings alone, the players and their instruments “reaching out” towards the end, seeking a kind of transfigured resolution.

Louise Webster’s work This memory of earth presented perhaps for me the most epic of the disc’s scenarios, beginning with an ambience shaken and stirred through bird-calls repeated by different instruments to form a kind of consort communing with a sonic environment. These solo instrument calls variously brought into focus a remarkably concerted tactile picture of a world in accord with a growing individual sensibility, with the composer gradually morphing the sounds into a new, somewhat more desperate and in places lamenting scenario, as if the world of childhood order was threatened – the cello intoned a moving lament-like chorale which drew the other instruments into its mode. The utterance became in places almost mystic as the long-remembered bird cries searched for their once-prized ambient responses from their surroundings – a sobering, exhortatory soundscape of recollection and remonstration, conscious of and fearful for the fragility of the natural world that was once ours – all extraordinarily moving.

Lastly, Salina Fisher, the youngest of the composers represented by their works on this CD, expressed with her work Tōrino the resounding effect of taonga puoro artist Rob Thorne’s music upon her listening experiences. The work was premiered by the New Zaland String Quartet in 2016 and went on to win the SOUNZ Contemporary Award the same year. Tōrino means “spiral”, with the music suggesting parallel kinds of recurring patterns as the strings seek to explore expressive similarities with the pūtōrino (known as both a trumpet and a flute due to its capabilities for reproducing both kinds of timbres and tones).

Fisher’s piece begins with vigorously ear-catching “trumpet” tones (kokiri o te tane, or male voice),  which give the impression of  summonsing calls and gesturings by the strings, both cello and viola readily sounding and overlapping one another, then joined by the two violins echoing the same figures and their variants.  The pūtōrino can also sing in different registers such as its “flute” personality when played at its other end, or when the player activates a different voice again by blowing over a “middle hole” in the instrument. Fisher achieves a “spiralling” effect with each of these expressive modes echoing and developing their material,  while in addition her inventiveness creates as much a sonic environment as a panoply of characterful voices.

Growing out of this synthesis come the more elusive, almost self-communing “middle hole” utterances, the piece’s “echoing” inclinations giving each impulse a resonating connection with what follows, be it a variant or a silence. They are the harbingers of the pūtōrino’s waiata o te hine (female voice), outpourings whose insistences slowly but assuredly reawaken the trumpet-toned voices, their reaffirmations proving to be the final, enduring sounds as the piece closes.

The performance of Fisher’s piece here epitomises the New Zealand String Quartet’s generous and single-minded commitment to the whole enterprise, with at every moment of engagement the players’ attack, phrasings and tones seemed to take us “inside” the notes and phrases, ambiences and silences. The two discs, of course, are separate entities, but their “bringing together” here reaffirms the extraordinary commitment of the players to these home-grown manifestations of what Douglas Lilburn in his celebrated 1969 essay “A search for a Language” called on behalf of local composers at the time “a sense of belonging somewhere”. And the works on these two discs are here reproduced with a fidelity of letter, spirit and atmosphere enabled in splendid partnership with Atoll Records producer Wayne Laird and recording engineer Graham Kennedy, people whose skills enable the sounds to retain what feels to me on each hearing as “an urgency of recreation” –  a listening  experience I would strongly recommend to all to try. The earlier disc has actually been sold out for some time, so perhaps a new and augmented groundswell of interest in this more recent notes from a Journey Vol.II production might well awaken and even rejuvenate its older, and no less worthy “sleeping partner”.

Whatever the fates decree, let plaudits be given to all for such a stellar achievement!

The New Zealand String Quartet at Waikanae – Emperors, dictators and husbands in music

Waikanae Music Society presents:
The New Zealand String Quartet with Diedre Irons (piano)

JOSEF HAYDN – String Quartet in C Major Op. 76 No.3 “Emperor”
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major Op. 92
AMY BEACH – Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor Op.67 (1907)

The New Zealand String Quartet – Helene Pohl (leader), Monique Lapins (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall,

Sunday 8th October

Straightaway one felt something out of the ordinary as soon as the NZ String Quartet players took the Waikanae Memorial Hall stage and put their bows upon the strings to begin their concert – there was resonance in the voices, spring in the rhythm, and fluency arm-in-arm with an ease of variety and contrast – and to think I had thought beforehand, to my shame, “Oh, not another “Emperor! – with almost seventy other Haydns to choose from!” , when as it turned out, this was one which the playing made me really want to hear!

All of the above was part of the build-up to the great moment in the first movement that cellist Rolf Gjelsten had gotten his fellow-players to demonstrate for us in his introduction to the work – that plunge into the full-blooded rusticity of the dance, with strings suddenly becoming pipes and drones and stamping feet – outlandish, even gawky at first hearing, but so organic in the playing’s wider context that it placed the composer entirely at home in the scenario – It’s in this almost incomparable fusion of aristocratic and peasant-like that Haydn’s genius shines as brightly as anywhere else in his oeuvre!

Magic of a different kind was wrought by the Quartet’s hushed intensities with the slow movement’s beginning, lifting the much-vaunted melody far above cliché and commonplace utterance, and proceeding to ennoble it further with different voices for each repetition, the players in the final variation “centring” their tones as to produce a kind of extra-terrestrial expressive world reminiscent of Tchaikovsky and Borodin almost a century later.

The players danced the Menuetto through the music’s wry asymmetries, allowing a droll pesante touch with the slurred-note cascading passage that answered the opening set of phrases. How beautifully we were eased into the minor key Trio, with its briefly nonchalant shift to the major and back again to the minor, a “did we dream you or did you dream us?” moment! Far more volatile was the finale, with its three opening whiplash chords and scurrying minor-key presto figures making a helter-skelter impression, the players demonstrating spectacular fingerwork, in places excitingly tossing impulses from instrument to instrument, and bringing honour and acclaim to the music’s arrival at its eventual major-key conclusion!

On paper it seemed like something of a quantum leap from Haydn to Shostakovich, but the players seemed at the outset of the latter composer’s Fifth String Quartet of 1952 to straightaway forge links between the clarity and focus of the sounds created by each of these two masters of the genre. Shostakovich’s work and its predecessor, the Fourth String Quartet each had their genesis from a time in Russia (immediately post-Second World War) when, along with fellow-composers Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, he had been castigated by the authorities for not creatively responding as whole-heartedly as was expected to marking the thirtieth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Shostakovich was unnerved by these attacks to the point where he held back publication of several of his major works of that time until after Stalin’s death in 1953.

The Quartet’s music grows out of a five-note motif which the composer developed in imitation of JS Bach, who featured his own name in his music via the notes representing B-A-C-H, Shostakovich using the notes C-D-Eflat-B-Csharp derived from his own D-S-C-H motif. He also quotes from another source in this work, a Clarinet Trio written by a student of his, Galina Ustvolskaya, whose friendship Shostakovich valued and whose work he admired. At the outset his Quartet intersperses the five notes of the motif with obsessively-driving rhythmic figures before quoting Ustvolskaya’s contrasting waltz-like theme, and then exploring various permutations of the latter interacting with his own five-note motif, all the while intensifying the trajectories and accretions of the music’s forward movement.

The NZSQ players, to whom these kinds of musical intensities always seem meat and drink, held all of this together superbly, setting the beleaguered lyricism against the savageries with unfailing focus as we ran the emotional gauntlet towards the movement’s sudden de-escalation and eerie transition, via purposeful pizzicato passages and a spectral solo violin line, and found ourselves taken to mysterious places wrought by the second movement’s wraith-like fugal musings. These growing intensities with their “time standing still” aspect were steadily and patiently transporting us to “different realms” when the lines were strangely augmented by “wailing” sounds, at which point  the quartet stopped playing to listen to the intrusion with evident bemusement! (The locals, however, were not perturbed – these were the Waikanae volunteer fire brigade’s summonsing calls, a delicious irony being that a wartime photograph of the composer as an actual volunteer fireman does apparently exist somewhere  – giving rise to the thought that this interjection was meant as some kind of token of kinship!)

With the air of a group steadfastedly maintaining its own shared vision, the players picked up their journeyings through the music’s ambient wastes and continued their peregrinations – a “return to life” set of impulses became a kind of  “way through” and took us far from the initial conviviality of the finale’s opening jogtrot rhythms and into places where the five-note motif’s appearance and insistent repetitions reawakened tensions aplenty, the players running the music’s energies ragged, and spectacularly bolstering some of the more assertive figures with forthright pizzicati echoes of “belonging”, which, when done with led to some of the epilogue’s most heartfelt utterances – how piquant were those final pages, with the cello’s and solo violin’s laments comforted by the middle voices’ sustained life-lines.

Footnote: I decided, simply out of interest at first, take the opportunity to find out more concerning the background to the composer’s relationship with the aforementioned Galina Ustvolskaya, whose music Shostakovich quotes several times in the first movement of this quartet. I was greatly surprised to find a fierce controversy had arisen after Shostakovich’s death from various published interviews and dismissive statements made by the younger composer about her supposed “mentor”, giving rise to some of Ustvolskaya’s supporters adding to what amounted to a “denigration” of Shostakovich, both as a man and as a composer. All I can say in response is that, whatever reasons people might have had to cast aspersions upon the idea of a composer’s greatness, in this instance their comments and viewpoints ran counter in no uncertain terms to my own previous experience of Shostakovich’s music and, not least to what I’d just come from here regarding the NZSQ’s staunch, unswerving  journeyings through an “inferno” of angst-ridden outpourings from a truly creative soul.

So to the concert’s second half, the subject of which was the incredible American-born Amy Beach (1867-1944), a quintessential nineteenth-century woman composer who eventually overcame societal obstacles and made a career for herself as a performer and composer. One wonders what she might have achieved had her circumstances allowed her talents to flourish at a much younger age! – though it’s arguable, however, whether Beach’s situation led to musical deprivation or fulfilment on her part, as her husband’s insistence that she restrict her performance activities did lead to an intensification of her composing abilities, which itself has left an important legacy.

Dating from 1907, Beach’s Piano Quintet owed a lot to Brahms’s Piano Quintet, which she herself had performed with the Kneisel Quartet in 1900. Hearing its dramatic opening straight away reminded me as much of the sound-world of Cesar Franck as that of Brahms – the romanticism of the work’s dark, mysterious beginning has a kind of charged quality expressed in chromatic terms that’s similar to Franck’s, further expressed by the rippling piano part, though the excitingly assertive piano octaves that followed, full and rich under Diedre Irons’ fingers immediately brought Brahms back to mind, as did the swaying second subject presented by turns by the strings and on the piano (the tolling bell a feature of the keyboard writing). I thought the players relished the stormily dramatic string unison that began the development section, matched by the piano’s equally commanding reply (amazing piano playing!), all of which morphed into a reprise of the lovely second subject with bell-like piano sonorities, and a quiet, brooding end to the movement.

Firstly the strings, then the piano ravished our senses with the slow movement’s opening melody, the strings musing for a while afterwards, then the violins repeating the melody, Monique Lapins whole-heartedly with the theme and Helene Pohl tenderly descanting overhead – a series of intense interchanges culminates with a virtuosic outburst from the piano, and a deep, rich rendering of the melody from the cello, Rolf Gjelsten giving the lines full play and stimulating the other voices to full-throatedly take the melody to the heights of expression.

The finale’s vivace opening waltzed in to great effect, with an impish agitato character stalking the dancers every which way and all very chromatic, Gillian Ansell’s gorgeous viola solo providing much-appreciated if temporary respite! The agitato impulses returned, the strings exhausting their lyrical capacities over the next little while, and nervously taking refuge in tremolandi, then playing hide and seek with an agitated fugal passage kept most excitingly kept on the rails right through to the last flourish!! The players then gingerly picked their way through the myriads of spent intensities, the piano leading the way and the strings rhapsodising – then the music surges again, the players giving the composer’s unquenchable romantic spirit here full rein. And the work’s coda is spectacular, by turns, headlong and unrepentantly rhapsodic – and finishes with a flourish! – cor, blimey! I’m still feeling exhausted by it all as I write this! The NZSQ musicians (and the indefatigable  Diedre Irons) certainly gave Amy Beach her dues, and we loved them and her for it!

Late afternoon sunlight

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Aroha String Quartet with Rachel Vernon (clarinet)

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sunday, 1 May 2022

This was the first concert of a new season for Wellington Chamber Music, and the organisers must have been anxious. The pandemic has changed audiences and the business of giving concerts. Would they come?

They needn’t have worried. St Andrew’s was pleasantly full for this delightful concert, featuring Rachel Vernon on clarinet.

The Aroha Quartet have been regular performers here over the years – they were founded in 2004 – and they have their own following. But the pandemic has worked some changes on the Quartet, too.  Concerts were cancelled in 2020 and again in 2021, and cellist Robert Ibell had to take time off after an injury last year. Today Anne Loeser was guesting as second violin, although you would never have suspected, such was the rapport between the players.

Two of the works in today’s programme were familiar: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K 581, and Brahms’s great Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Opus 115. Sandwiched in between these chamber classics was a mysterious little work by Astor Piazzolla, called Oblivion. What could it be?

Mozart’s Quintet of 1789 is a delightful work. Mozart took the clarinet seriously, and helped to establish the instrument as a member of the orchestral woodwind section. He wrote this quintet for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, and subsequently referred to it as the ‘Stadler Quartet’. Stadler played it on the bassett clarinet, which has four additional low notes compared with a standard clarinet. These days the work is usually performed on the clarinet in A flat (and no one is quite sure where those low notes were used, as Mozart’s original manuscripts have never been found).

From the opening phrase of the first movement, the group established their characteristically warm sound, incorporating the deep sonority of the clarinet’s first entry. The balance was beautiful and the phrasing graceful. The cello’s pizzicato passage with the lyrical first violin above set the style for the work: refined, stylistic, beautiful.  The second Larghetto movement unfurls long, long phrases from the clarinet over muted strings. The clarinet is always moving over the more static string passages. There was lyrical playing from first violinist Haihong Liu.

The third movement, Menuetto, is rhythmic and dance-like, with a lovely aria from the clarinet. The middle section, two trios, features some thrilling clarinet playing, first very low, then high, as though to show off what the instrument is capable of. (After all, it wasn’t invented until 1788, the year before Mozart wrote this quintet.) The fourth movement is a theme and variations, which sometimes buried the clarinet in the string texture. There are some fast passages in which the strings chase each other, with the clarinet maintaining a calm presence over the top.

Next came the Piazzolla work. This was fantastic. It began life as film music, written for a film called Enrico IV, which was itself based on the play by Pirandello. But such is the beauty of the writing that the work is often performed as a concert piece, either for bandoneon (as in the film) or adapted for other instruments, including the clarinet, as here. There’s a famous version for string orchestra with Gidon Kremer on violin, another for solo guitar, and even one for two cellos and ice-skater. For me, knowing nothing of these, the string quartet and clarinet version was completely perfect, with loss, longing, and resignation balanced between the voices.

The film is described as a tragicomedy, but tragedy is to the fore in Oblivion. It opens with a weighty and complex sadness, with the clarinet shimmering in and up the scale, first lyrical, then grave. The string writing is passionate, the clarinet calming, a clear true voice. Finally, the cello somehow turns into a bandoneon, with low throbbing from the clarinet before it disappears into a trill. It is a short work. As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again.

If you want to get a sense of this small perfect work, by all means listen to it on YouTube, but you will not experience the beauty of Rachel Vernon’s playing, or the sympathetic accompaniment of the Aroha Quartet.

The last work on the programme was Brahms’s Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet. Like Mozart, Brahms was moved to write a quintet because of the playing of a virtuoso clarinettist. In 1890, no sooner had he announced that he had retired from composing than he heard the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, and promptly de-retired.

This is another well-known and beloved work. For me it shimmers with late afternoon sunlight. That is not to say it lacks drama. There is a moment of passionate agitation in the first movement, yet the darkness is followed by golden light. The second movement is slow and sad, as though the performers are walking, carrying a great weight. The clarinet sings of loss, but also beauty. The third pastorale movement, with its rushing, scurrying strings, allows the clarinet to sing. The fourth movement is a set of variations. It finishes by using the material from the first movement, returning to us the golden shafts of sunlight, falling between the trees. A short duet between clarinet and viola over pizzicato cello, and then a gentle falling into silence.

There are three more performances of this programme. The ones in Rangiora and Thames are probably too far, but if you get a chance to go to Wanganui for their concert on 13 September, take it. A gorgeous first concert to open Wellington Chamber Music’s 2022 season.

What I would take through death’s dark door

New Zealand String Quartet National Tour
Programme 2:  MOZART – String Quartet No 21 in D, K. 575
LOUISE WEBSTER – this memory of earth
SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op. 122
MENDELSSOHN – String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op. 13

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street, Wellington

Sunday, 14 November 2021

This concert, like its predecessor on Friday 12 November, was delayed by the Covid-19 Level 4/3 restrictions in August and September, and was also displaced from the Hunter Council Chamber to St Peter’s Church. The change of venue was positive. Although the NZSQ has never performed in the church before, it is an excellent venue for chamber music, with its warm and rather dry acoustic contributing to a clear and intimate sound.

The first work on the programme was the well-known String Quartet No 21, K. 575 of Mozart, written as the first of a set of six commissioned by King Frederick William II, a keen cellist. It’s a delightful work, and was played with great style and charm. Because the quartet was written for a cellist, it is impossible to ignore how Mozart made sure to give the cello-playing King plenty to do, occasionally popping out of the texture with an attractive short solo, or in duet with one of the other voices. The allegretto final movement features lovely cello solos beneath an agitated theme that is passed around the upper voices, before the first theme reappears like a burst of brilliant sunshine.

The Louise Webster work did not suffer by being sandwiched in between Mozart and Shostakovich. It was commissioned by the NZSQ, and was first performed in May 2020. Its title, ‘this memory of earth’, was taken from a poem called ‘Fields in Midsummer’ by the New Zealand poet Ruth Dallas (1919-2008), a nature poet who often struck an elegiac tone. The composer (who is also, we were told, a paediatrician and child psychologist) writes: ‘Our earliest memories of the land shape who we are, who we become. …At a time when our world is under such threat, these threads of memory nudge us, reminding us of what we must hold, treasure,reclaim, rebuild…’

The piece is built up of tiny pieces of melody and rhythmic fragments tossed from part to part, evoking memories of the natural world – bird song, often in Violin 1, sometimes over a weird metallic drone created by the inner parts, with sad chords and fast rising glissandi, and the occasional strident outburst. Often the cello part creates an undertow of sadness, reminding us insistently of loss. The complete line from Dallas’s poem is relevant: ‘This memory of earth I would take through death’s dark door’.

This was a beautiful work, insisting upon the memories we carry within us, and on the vulnerability of the natural world. My notes say towards the end: ‘A melody, finally, but almost admonitory: “Do you not see this?” Emphatic sombre cello. Human voice, low and lyrical. Tutti now – but grey harmonies.’

I could have done with hearing the Webster played twice, because there is so much material to understand, and it is hard to make sense of as a whole on first hearing. There is a constant on-rush of new ideas, and many extraordinary brief effects. The Dallas title was well chosen. The composer’s close observation of nature imbued with a strong sense of loss was perfectly suited to Dallas (and perhaps too to the COP26 Summit being held in Glasgow over the past fortnight).

The Shostakovich quartet (No 11 in F minor, Op. 122, written in 1966) would, I thought, have been sufficient to make a complete concert on its own. Despite lasting only 15 minutes, it contains enough music for an entire symphony. The quartet was written not long after Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, which is based on the ‘Babi Yar’ poems of the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko was phenomenally popular in the sixties, sufficiently so to get away with publishing the poems, which are about the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, by the Nazis in 1941. The Soviets were covertly anti-Semitic, and Yevtushenko’s poem both memorialises the atrocity and exposes the complicity of the Soviet authorities, who had not so much as marked the site of the massacre.

The seven short movements of the quartet, played without pausing, evoke the poems, the massacre, and the cynical brutality of the Soviet state. This is angry music, in which the composer seems to conform to the will of the Soviet authorities but provides the most severe and withering critique of their actions. It was written with great courage. For years Shostakovich kept a suitcase packed ready by the door of his flat, so that if he was dragged off to prison in the middle of the night by the KGB, his family would not be disturbed.

The sixth movement, Elegy, was intensely personal. It was written to commemorate the death of Vassily Shirinsky, second violinist in the famous and long-running Beethoven Quartet, which premiered 13 of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets (and whose mantle was passed to the Borodin Quartet). Shostakovich, Rolf Gjelsten told us in his introduction to the work, ‘felt as though he had lost the ground from underneath him’ when his friend died. The first violin has much to tell us about Shirinsky, but the insistent bom-bom-bom rhythm from the cello tells us that nothing can be done. We are standing around a grave. The second violin has stopped playing, just as Shirinsky has.

This was a stupendous performance, bleak and deeply moving. The concert seemed complete. But there was more. After a short interval, we were treated to an early Mendelssohn work, String Quartet No 2 in A minor (Op. 13). It was written when Mendelssohn was only 18 (but with the musical maturity of a 36-year-old) and had just fallen in love with a girl. It is as sunny and lyrical a work as you can imagine, returning us to a world in which beauty, love, and possibility are all around us. This provided a lovely pairing for the Mozart Quartet that opened the concert, as though we needed to be de-gaussed before returning to our lives.

And finally, the Quartet presented an uncharacteristic encore. In this case it was a thank-you to the Turnovsky Endowment Trust, which has supported the NZSQ in its annual National Tour for 20 years. Fred and Lotti Turnovsky’s daughter Helen was present for the acknowledgement, which came in the form of a very Czech polka from the Second String Quartet by the Turnovskys’ compatriot Bedrich Smetana. The idiomatic rhythms gestured to the Shostakovich, but the polka was an innocent and merry dance of joy, a celebration of the Czech national style, not a satirical commentary on totalitarianism.

In all, it felt more like two concerts worth of music, gloriously played. Fred Turnovsky’s vision for bringing the music of great European composers to New Zealand audiences, and his support for the NZSQ, were truly honoured.

From the Bush to the Ballroom: the NZSQ Plays Music from Aotearoa and Central Europe

The New Zealand String Quartet

2021 National Tour –  Programme 1

HAYDN – String Quartet Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise”
FARR –  Te Kōanga
LIGETI –  String Quartet No. 1 “Métamorphoses nocturnes”
DVORAK –  String Quartet No. 10, Op. 51

The Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Friday, 12 November 2021

This concert was billed as a “Premium Concert Experience,” the kind of language that sets the teeth of a crusty old pedant like me somewhat on edge. It refers in this instance to a format involving tables instead of serried rows of chairs, with drinks and canapés served at the interval, a concept that also struck me initially as rather naff.  However, I ended up enjoying it thoroughly, partly because it was well done (the hall did not smell like a restaurant, the drinks and canapés were modest and discreetly served, and I didn’t hear anyone slurping during the music!), and partly because the elegant interior of the Public Trust Hall lends itself quite nicely to this atmosphere of discreet bourgeois luxury. The Haydn quartet that opened the programme completed the illusion of being, perhaps, a relatively anonymous guest at the Esterházy court enjoying the fruits of their musical patronage.  (In actual fact we were enjoying the fruits of the Turnovsky Endowment Trust’s patronage — the Trust has supported the Quartet for two decades as of this year — and the strong Austro-Hungarian orientation of the music programmed for this national tour of the NZSQ pays homage to Frederick Turnovsky’s Central European roots, with Czech composers especially featured.)  To my surprise, it was also easier to focus on the music while sitting comfortably at a table rather than in a row of seats; the sightlines were better, and one felt less like a sardine and more like a patron of the arts.  In short: five stars, would attend a “premium concert experience” again.

Of course it didn’t hurt that the music itself was exquisite. It is always a huge pleasure to watch the NZSQ perform; they are so attentive to one another, communicating through their body language both the mood of the music and the relationships within it.  The Haydn “Sunrise” quartet comes by its name honestly, opening with a warm, sustained B-flat major chord in the three lower voices from which the first violin takes off on a series of upward runs that immediately evoke the rising sun. The motif returns throughout the movement (occasionally inverted, sometimes in a minor key suggesting clouds over the sun) and gets passed around from instrument to instrument, while in between the four lines chase each other around in semiquavers that variously evoke running water, scurrying animals, chattering birds, etc. Much opportunity here to enjoy both the individual voices of the Quartet’s four excellent members and the various dialogues forming and dissolving between players, a texture the NZSQ performs brilliantly.  

This “Allegro con spirito” nature study was succeeded by a chorale-like Adagio that largely tethered the lower voices together in a chordal texture while the first violin again soared above in rippling arabesques — the Hungarian Count von Erdődy to whom the Op. 76 quartets are dedicated must have had a first violinist he enjoyed listening to.  The rising semitones from the first movement carried through the second and into the third, a robust and jolly Menuetto that transported the hearer straight to an Eastern European tavern and the very thick of a peasant dance. Strongly rhythmic, as if to evoke stomping feet, the Menuetto also features octave unisons in the violins over a bass drone in the cello that conjured bagpipes in our midst.  One often hears the expression “not a dry eye in the house,” but in this case I think there was not a wet eye in the house; the mirth and jollity of this movement was too contagious. A somewhat more aristocratic-feeling folk dance — say, a ballroom adaptation — formed the atmosphere of the Finale, with the four instruments again passing around fragments of the main theme, coalescing into brief and various alliances without sticking out from the collective.  An accelerating and intensifying coda brought things to a satisfying conclusion and left the audience in no doubt about when to applaud.

If the Haydn quartet transported us by turns to a meadow, a church, a tavern, and a ballroom, Gareth Farr’s 2017 work Te Kōanga took us to the Marlborough Sounds of the composer’s holidays as a teenager, when — according to the Quartet’s programme notes — he heard, and noted down, the song of a particular tui whose voice is immortalised in the piece’s opening bars. Rather than a stylized Classical impression of avian dawn choruses, then, Te Kōanga (“spring” or “planting season” in te reo Māori) offered direct transcriptions of native birdsong — specifically, two tuis and a weka — which gradually gathered into a rich, rhythmic texture in the top three voices while the cello provided a jazzy pizzicato bass line underneath.  The piece, commissioned as a memorial to Wellington luthier and cellist Ian Lyons by his family, is written to evoke, and celebrate, Lyons’ passion for the natural world, and specifically the wild outdoor spaces around Wellington. It was built around three main textures: a hushed, tremulous evocation of the native bush filled with birdsong; angular, airy percussive sections with (what the program called) “powerful plucks and snaps on the strings”; and more solid arco sections that often featured unisons diverging into Shostakovich-like dissonant harmonies. We visited each of these terrains several times, in various permutations, before vanishing once again into hushed space as the bird songs quieted.

It was back to Hungary for the last piece before the interval: György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, nicknamed “Métamorphoses nocturnes.”  Helene Pohl, in her introductory comments, said the Quartet hear strong echoes of late Beethoven in the work, as well as the obvious influence of Bartók (whose works, however, Ligeti knew only insofar as they were approved for performance by the Stalinist government still in place when he was writing his first quartet; the works of other, more frankly avant-garde composers, such as Alban Berg, could not be heard at all, though Ligeti owned a score of Berg’s Lyric Suite and professed it as an influence on this work).  

If images of the natural world had provided the link from Haydn to Farr, the opening of the Ligeti hearkened back to Haydn via the motif of rising semitones. Here, however, far from the warmth of Haydn’s sunrise, chromatic scales — rising from a low C, beginning in the viola and gradually trickling into the cello and second violin — sounded spooky and, well, more Transylvanian (the composer was born in Transylvania in 1923) than plain old sylvanian. I found myself feeling glad that the scales were at least going up rather than down. From here, the first violin introduces the motif that Ligeti identified as the “concept” which “metamorphoses” rather than receiving conventional variations over the course of the piece, which is written as a single movement although distinct “sub-movements” are marked within it.  The texture ranged from delicate tremolo sections over melancholy harmonies to hyperactive fortissimo outbursts.  Though the overall effect was unconventional, formal conventions were not disregarded; the opening “Allegro grazioso” (with its unsettling rising scales) performed the traditional function of introducing the material to be developed; other sections recognizably included standard exercises such as a march, a waltz, a mournful adagio, etc. — but all knocked slightly askew.  


I thought the NZSQ played this superbly, with considerable humor, as well as energy and passion.  Both solo and ensemble playing were flawless. The music seemed to grow out of them more organically than the preceding two pieces (although I had no complaints about the preceding two pieces). From where I was sitting I happened to have a better-than-usual view of the inner voices, Monique Lapins on second violin and Gillian Ansell on viola; it was such a pleasure to watch them knit their lines together, as they were frequently called upon to do. All four players were fully involved in the music and obviously hearing and communicating with all three of their respective colleagues (at least, I am extrapolating in regard to Rolf Gjelsten, whose cello sounded terrific but of whom, from my vantage point, only a tidy haircut could be seen). Sometimes their playing and body language communicated deep empathy; sometimes, mutual hilarity (my notes single out “the bits where everyone is playing glissando and making each other laugh”: glissando was much to the fore, appearing in pizzicato and harmonic as well as arco sections). The “Tempo di Valse” section sounded irresistibly like a couple of Chaplinesque drunks trying to walk home (but was followed immediately by a ringing, urgent “subito prestissimo” lest we get too comfortable in our amusement). Perhaps under the influence of the “nature study” theme introduced by Haydn and Farr, I heard the alternations between prestissimo and allegro “giovale” in the last quarter of the piece as a tale revolving around angry bees; perhaps, those unsuccessfully hunted by Winnie-the-Pooh (who, under the name Micimackó, had been a beloved part of Hungarian children’s culture since 1935, so why not?).  My irreverence was, however, again stopped short by the sorrowful concluding Lento, tapering into silence (another aspect of performance at which the NZSQ excels: holding a silence for a decent length of time before relaxing for applause.)

This was a high note on which to adjourn for the interval (during which I was amused to be served hors d’oeuvres by shining lights of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, whose last concert I had recently reviewed).  On the programme for the second half was just one work, Dvořák’s  Tenth Quartet. This began tentatively but soon warmed up into the luscious and catchy folk-derived melodies for which Dvořák is known. Here as in the fourth movement of the opening Haydn, the folk dances felt less earthy than stylized; not so much an invitation to dance as an invitation to think about dancing. The opening polka is followed up in the second movement by a darker, more melancholic Andante (the “dumka” or folk lament, which is in turn contrasted by a lively Vivace section.  The third movement, labelled “Romanza,” is lyrical, yearning, and optimistic. Finally, the fourth movement returns to the stylized evocation of the dance hall with an exceptionally catchy and upbeat “skočná,” the fast-paced folk dance also used extensively by the composer in his Slavonic Dances. A meno mosso restatement of the main theme followed by a tiny, fast coda provided a final flourish to, as the programme notes suggested “send the listener on his merry way.” 

After such a programme, however, the listener proved not so eager to be sent. Applause continued until the Quartet returned to their designated performance spot in front of the windows to serve us “one more bonbon”: Rolf Gjelsten’s arrangement for string quartet of Janáček’s Znělka (“Sonnet”) in A Major, JW VII/1 (originally composed for four violins). The choice of a Czech composer for the encore was made in deference to Frederick Turnovsky’s original nationality, but also served as a fitting coda to a programme so firmly grounded in the Austro-Hungarian region (with even the deeply local Gareth Farr piece audibly connected by theme and technique to the “Hungarian” works placed before and after it). In all, I would have to say that not only the playing but the programme composition was superb; coherent, surprising, logical yet unexpected. The Haydn and Dvořák “standards” were meaningfully illuminated by juxtaposition with the less-known Farr and Ligeti works (and vice versa). While I may remain dubious about the terminology “Premium Concert Experience,” there is no doubt that this was, absolutely, a “premium” musical experience, and one I’m profoundly glad I had the opportunity to hear.

New Zealand String Quartet at Lower Hutt – three views of Beethoven

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets for the Ages

String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18 No.4
String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.74 “Harp”
String Quartet in C-sharp Minor. Op.131

The New Zealand String Quartet –
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Thursday, 3rd June, 2021

I remember reading an interview many years ago with one of the great Beethoven interpreters of recent tines, Alfred Brendel, and warming to him all the more when he responded to a question regarding his “hobbies” by listing one of them as “collecting unintentional humour”. Brendel would doubtless have relished the unexpected “cyber-glitches” experienced by violinist Helene Pohl and ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten relating to their respective electronic page-turners’ charmingly (and perhaps appropriately connubial) interaction, just before the music got under way, Helene remarking of Rolf’s device at one point, “His machine keeps turning MY pages!”

Of course there was no ice needing to be broken, no frigid formality here –  the NZSQ’s characteristic “instant engagement” with whatever music the group performs invariably does the trick with audiences in a flash – nevertheless the momentary malfunctionings and the ensuing banter meant that we were this time even more-than-usually “primed” for enjoyment and wide-eared appreciation of what we were about to hear. And, such was the music’s expressive capacity and the players’ involvement with the sounds and their interaction, we were able to truly savour Rolf Gjelsten’s post-performance comments regarding Op.18 No. 4 as a satisfying retrospective of the music, the players having borne out to a tee his references to things such as Josef Haydn’s influence, and the younger composer’s avowed determination to match, if not outdo his great mentor’s achievement in this form.

Being in C minor, a key marking a significantly expressive world of feeling for Beethoven, the Op.18 No.4’s dark opening demeanour made its mark, while being cross-currented with mellowness in places, some especially lovely duetting between first and second violins a delight, and a graceful return to the opening throwing the darker-browed moments into bolder relief. I loved the expectation engendered by the playing of the development, the emotions unerringly terraced with crescendos of feeling, the ‘cello enjoying the same thematic material as the two violins in the exposition, the violin responding with a minor-key version of the same (“Anything you can do, etc…”), before a stepwise progression of the themes brought us to the recapitulation with great theatricality and presence, whose drama of “working out” the material left us humming at the end.

Unusually for the time, a scherzo-like allegretto followed, the daintiness of the fugato entries countenanced by the gruffness of the cello’s entries, the two “modes” playfully snapping at one another’s heels during the exposition. How intently the players made us listen to the development with its hushed, tongue-in-cheek gestures, pinning our ears back with the occasional sforzando and delighting us with moments of rustic gallantry augmenting the delicacies, the interactions having a quality here of such spontaneous enjoyment as giving an almost improvisatory feeling to the working-out.

There followed an amazing third movement! – a Menuetto almost to be “imagined” rather than realised, the chromatic writing enabling the music to appear to change from darkness to light and back to darkness almost within the space of a phrase, Beethoven drawing from Haydn’s example with fanciful exploratory impulses. The players wafted the Trio’s roulade-like figures skywards like flights of ecstasy, making the Menuetto’s return all the more “spooked”-sounding for its urgencies. The finale impishly suggested a minor-key version of Haydn’s “Gypsy” Piano Trio at the outset, but what most tickled the ear was the “give-and-take” treatment of the flowing contrasting theme’s voicing, and then the rapid-fire repeated-note versions of the opening, with first and second violins “juggling” the same theme to delightful effect. And the prestissimo ending here set high spirits against insouciant humour with real aplomb – splendid!

It was a pleasure to listen to Rolf (and, later in the concert, to Helene Pohl), talk about music the players obviously know so well and convey so much affinity with, Rolf placing the Op.18 work we had just listened to in the context of Beethoven’s three “periods” as a composer, and suggesting that here, in effect, would be three different people represented by the evening’s music – firstly the young, thrusting Beethoven, conscious of his influences and wanting to match and even surpass them in his own music, followed by a period during which he  grappled with debilitating deafness, striving to counter and overcome fate, hence the “heroic” aspect of works like the Fifth Symphony and the “Emperor” Concerto, one of which was the Op.74 “Harp” Quartet. Rolf indicated that Helene would later introduce the great Op.131 Quartet, one of those handful of works in which Beethoven seemed almost to transcend human existence in the creative sphere.

Innovative though certain aspects of the Op.18 quartets were, Beethoven’s “usual” quartet of string players (led by the wondrously-named Ignaz Schuppanzigh) seemed by all accounts equal to any technical difficulty in performance, though it was a different story with the later quartets, Schuppanzigh telling the composer that Op.59 (Razumovsky) and Op.74 (Harp) were “too unusual and challenging” to be accepted by the public. And, of course, Schuppanzigh was to dismiss the late quartets as impossible to play at first, eliciting the composer’s famously scathing remark concerning the former’s “miserable violin” (Schuppanzigh and his quartet subsequently “knuckled down” and played them anyway, revolutionising chamber music performing practice in the process, his quartet’s subscription concerts the first to be devoted entirely to instrumental music, and to focus on a single genre in a concert series).

Even to today’s sensibilities, the Poco Adagio  beginning of the Op.74 quartet seems to have an extraordinary and unpredictable expressive reach, the material inhabiting territories whose vistas keep their mystery intact through two sudden separate sforzando chords, as if saying to us “Are you listening?”. Then, with the allegro, the fully-formed composer comes into the light like a force of nature! – here, some remarkably flexible playing took us to the distinctive repeated-note motif that closed the exposition (the repeat eagerly plunging us back to the allegro’s beginning), before entering into new and unnerving realms – where were we going? Those seemingly-spontaneously-wrought modulations, stretching the allegro theme almost to breaking-point brought about a pizzicato-to-arco crescendo in which the players wrought expectations almost to fever-pitch – so exciting! The recapitulation seemed here to give us a kind of looking-glass view of the way we’d come, taking us back to the repeated-note motif, but then, amazingly, drifting into a hitherto unexplored state of consciousness, the players timing it all so deliciously, allowing the impulses to swell and grow before igniting as scurrying violin figures, excitable pizzicati and echoing figurations, eventually bursting out with the properly-conclusive repeated-note motif proclaiming the music’s true destination in (dare one say) almost orgasmic fashion, interactive and exhilarating!

Some beautiful violin-playing began the Adagio ma non troppo, with similarly-voiced support from the others, a hymn-like outpouring whose heartfelt warmth seemed to suddenly fall away and expose a loneliness within, a mood-shift Beethoven seemed to consider deeply, then turn into some kind of ritual, with each instrument adding its warmth and resonance, until, again, the depths were uncovered and we were made to feel the extent of the darkness – enthralling, sotto voce playing, here, then beautiful duetting between the violins, rich tones leavened by birdsong, and a return to the tragic theme, as if the composer was audibly “wrestling” with it all – such a “layered” outpouring of emotion, here so movingly felt and enacted.

From deep feeling to blood-pulsating activity! – the scherzo’s Presto burst out of the blocks, racing at what seemed like top speed, the sounds incredibly energised and varied in dynamic range! And what an explosive Trio section! – a jumble of conflicting emotions caught up in a vortex of ceaseless movement! The repeat asked for more and got it, as wildly and frenetically as before! I loved the fantastical, Berlioz-like arrivals at the sustained open-string-sounding note just before the scherzo’s returnings, the final reprise a ghostly, and fantastical experience, the muted tones as unnerving as the previously impetuous trajectories of the music had been.  From the mutterings grew up a carefree-sounding three-note figure strung together in a step-wise way, the seemingly-innocent chant-like theme giving rise to worlds of kaleidoscopic delight in the variations which made up the work’s finale, the ensemble bringing it all to life – a canonic-like echo-game, a viola-led serenade (the instrument most beautifully allowed to sing in its upper register) and a burst of running activity punctuated with angular off-beats, leading to a soulful, almost hymn-like  a section which gave way to a jolly jot-trot, one during which one could see and feel the players’ involvement with the fun of the accompaniments as much as with the rallying-call of the melody!

But then, what a feat of imagination was the composer’s fusion of varied impulse which led to the work’s conclusion – the repeated cello notes pulsating the music’s life-lines beneath the sotto voce voices of the other instruments, the blood-flow maintained by other voices as the excitement intensified, the opening three-note figure energised and the pulsations swelling (we were all on the edges of our mind-seats by this time!), until the “running” variation burst upon us once again, carrying all before it in triumph, and concluding with a droll “that’s that!” gesture at the end!

What it was about this particular quartet and its performance that has given rise to my writing all of the above, I don’t fully understand! – except that I had heard the NZSQ  players “unlock” the music with such heartfelt commitment as to freshly awaken for me the delight of unlooked-for rediscovery, a realisation that this work wasn’t merely a “prelude” to greater achievements in the genre by its composer, but a universe in itself, a “world in a grain of sand”. I briefly and unexpectedly spoke with Rolf Gjelsten in the foyer during the interval, but wouldn’t have made much sense to him in my somewhat dazed state following such a performance! And still we had, waiting for us in the concert’s second half, Op. 131!

Having fallen under the spell of Op.74, I simply couldn’t escape similar immersion in this later work,  reputedly the composer’s favourite of all of his string quartets. Helene Pohl talked with us not only about the uniqueness of the world inhabited by these late works, but also about Beethoven’s fascination with and study of Jewish themes at this time, illustrating the influences on this particular quartet with some examples from Kol Nidrei (a traditional Jewish declaration of “cleansing” before prayer), citing and illustrating their use by Beethoven in the Quartet, particularly in the sixth movement. What struck me anew at the music’s beginning was the indescribable sadness of the opening theme, played on the solo violin and continued in fugal form by all of the voices, taking the listener into realms of wonderment, everything further intensified by the instruments’ different timbres, each crescendo of intensity exquisitely realised. I was put in mind in places, also, of Tchaikovsky’s music at its most “stricken”, the players adding breadth of expression to the music’s depth, “leaning” almost pathetically into each chord at the end and allowing the resonances their full countenance….

Out of the gloom a number of impulses lit up, gently dancing, the 6/8 rhythm as spontaneously playful and angular as those similarly-wrought gestures in the composer’s Op.111 Piano Sonata’s Arietta – the brief allegro moderato movement, filled with improvisatory musings and flourishes seemed to proclaim something new and unchartered was afoot, the theme’s serenity and full-throatedness attesting to Beethoven’s unswerving focus and determination to put across “what the spirit told him”, the gentle march-like rhythms engaging violin and cello, then viola and cello, and finally all the instruments in a swinging unison, the “improvisatory” nature of it all captured both compositionally and interpretatively by the players, to enchanting effect. Here were the duetting lower strings daring one another to continue, the violins in ecstasy together, with their flights of fancy, and we in the audience spellbound throughout it all!

Too rich to fully document, though too significant to let pass, the remaining variations seemed to generate themselves from what had gone before in wholly alchemic ways, the rapt textures (again to my ears anticipating Tchaikovsky’s, and Borodin’s sound-worlds) giving way to a ritualised, chant-like treatment energised by the cello with a brusque figure that increasingly impinged, goading the first violin into a reply, while the volatile Allegretto stretched the material every which way, before withdrawing into enigmatic, though momentary, silence….

Immediately, the Presto was upon us, a repeated two-note figure tumbling through the ensemble and tossed backwards and forwards like a slippery ball – the ensemble had great fun with the pizzicato exchanges, which intensified with each repetition, the players’ control allowing them a real sense of abandonment, creating a kind of illusion of a capricious spirit directing the music to speak, exuberance jumbled up with mystery, the ponticello playing near the end properly sending the shivers up one’s spine! What a dramatic switch, then, to the Adagio quasi un poco andante, brief, but abyss-like in its potential for grief and despair! – and how unequivocally the succeeding  Allegro turned the focus around, away from despair to determination, the music “taking arms against a sea of troubles” with the utmost vehemence, the players here viscerally conveying the music’s conflict, courting the occasional tenderly-consoling sequence, but then building up further heads of steam. And the ending (a scalp-tingling “tierce de picardie”, or major-key ending to a piece in a minor key) featured emphatic C#MAJOR chords! – the perfect rebuff to the “sea of troubles!”

I walked out in a daze, afterwards – fortunately, my car seemed to know the way home that evening!














“….And we shall be changed” – the New Zealand String Quartet’s completion of its 2020 Beethoven journey

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
VISIONARY – Beethoven 250th Anniversary
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets:
Op.130 in B-flat Major – original version with the “Grosse Fugue” finale –
later published separately as Op.133 (1826)
Op.131 in C-sharp Minor (1826)

The New Zealand String Quartet
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Hunter Building, Victoria University of Wellington,
Kelburn Parade, Wellington

Friday, 25th September, 2020

The listings in both the printed programme and the advance publicity suggested that we would get to hear BOTH of the “finales” of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.130  at the culminating concert of the New Zealand String Quartet’s series presenting all of the composer’s String Quartets. TWO finales? Well, after the first performance of Op.130 in 1826, the general critical reaction regarding the original “Grosse Fugue” finale was one of disbelief and misunderstanding, so much so that the composer’s publisher urged him to compose an alternative conclusion for the work, and publish the “Grosse Fugue” as a separate piece, Op.133.

Tonight’s programme listed all six movements of the revised version (the new finale being an Allegro in B-flat), and then listed the Grosse Fugue as a separate, stand-alone item. But then, as ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten proceeded with his spoken introduction regarding the delightful disparities in the makeup of Op.130, he ignored any descriptive mention of Beethoven’s alternative Allegro and straightaway spoke of the “Grosse Fugue” as if it was the “finale” the quartet was going to play – and so it proved, to my surprise and immense pleasure.

Some commentators have recently advocated that the most satisfactory solution when presenting this augmented assemblage is to play the original version immediately followed by the alternative finale – though one might consider such a plan as consigning the unfortunate Allegro very much to the realms of an “appendage”, this course at least follows the thread of compositional events and allows listeners to directly “experience” the disparity between what one might respectively call vision and pragmatism.

Out of curiosity I checked to see what the NZSQ had done when previously performing this work – and to my surprise discovered that it was not I. but my Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor who had been fortunate enough to gather these particular cherries, last time round! ….…in my defence I should say this all had happened (to my great astonishment) no less than eight years previously! – but I was at least able to ascertain that the Quartet indeed played the original version on that occasion as well!

I well remember upon first hearing this work over forty years previously, via one of the first recordings to present Op.130’s original version and jettison the alternative version of the finale entirely (the 1973 LaSalle Quartet on a Deutsche Grammophon LP), how remarkably “listenable” the work’s interior movements seemed to me to be, compared with those of some of the other late quartets I’d encountered at that time. It’s actually this accessibility that’s given rise to the most puzzlement among commentators, who have fallen back on descriptions of the work such as “an altogether strange miscellany of movements”, “a hotch-potch of character pieces”, and “an emulation of the baroque suite, with its contrasting dances”, all of which reactions have a validity of sorts without, it seems, managing to get to grips with the business of defining the indefinable.

Obviously, critical discernment has “walked the walk” regarding Beethoven’s late works over the duration – the composer’s own response to contemporary opinions – “they are not for you, but for a later age” – resonates more tellingly and fruitfully with ideas such as Rolf Gjelsten’s “essay in disruption” comment regarding the quartet as a whole, hinting at the subversion of association lurking beneath the bright-eyed exteriors of each of the pieces in question, and placing their assemblage into the category of a delicate balance between disparate elements. He also mentioned the context of comparison with the work’s very different concert companion this evening, Op.131, a piece whose structure set contrasting episodes into an organic whole, with transitions enabling the work to be presented in a continuous flow.

And so we began with Op.130, the sounds emerging easily and fluidly, as if beamed from a kaleidoscopic structure slowly revolving, until the crisp incursion of a dancing allegro, as taut as a well-controlled spring but with an impulsive kind of energy, quickened our blood and sharpened our senses, ready for the rest of the movement’s working-out of the two, quite separate premises, here  given the utmost character and focus, in the players’ intensity of attack and depth of perceived emotional response. A mercurial, furtively-scampering Presto followed, dissected mid-way by a madcap violin roller-coaster ride (with fearless playing from Helene Pohl!). Its closely-accompanying companion, an Andante con moto, cleared its throat and sang a tender song as time ticked away underneath, the lines seemingly at the mercy of spontaneous impulse, with everything almost surreal in its variety (heartfelt sighings next to mischievous pizzicati), the playing always alive to possibility – as conductor Otto Klemperer once said, “not the themes but their working-out, is the essential thing in Beethoven”.

I’ve always enjoyed the seemingly artless Alla danza Tedesca, but never quite registered the richness of the instrumental exchange to this degree before, and especially the tossing of the line between the instruments at one point near the conclusion, as each plays only one bar of the theme at its “turn” – a representation of sudden discontinuity and evanescence of feeling? The melody came back at the end, but a sense of something “dismantled” remained, perhaps for the Cavatina that followed to put to rights – here was the most serene ambience imaginable, the flowing, murmuring lines touching a couple of release=points, then delving into darker places in the “Beklemmt” (oppressed, anxious) sequence before returning to its former lyrical warmth.

After disconcerting the listener with a panoply of styles and sounds over the previous five movements, Beethoven then  proceeded to complement/renounce/obliterate all that had gone before in the quartet with the outlandish “Grosse Fugue”, a movement the composer subtitled “tantôt libre, tantôt recherchée” (sometimes free, sometimes studied) – as he had done with the forms used so far in the quartet, Beethoven here stretched and distorted commonly regarded “fugal” practice in a way that defies analysis except in the most specific terms – more impactful to instead quote Igor Stravinsky’s comment that it was “absolutely contemporary music that will be contemporary forever”. As previously mentioned, its abrupt appearance surprised some of us, due to the listing of the “replacement” allegro in the printed programme as the work’s sixth movement!

Once we had recovered from the shock of that opening unison flinging its challenge upwards and outwards, we set ourselves to make the journey with the players. As was the quartet’s custom all but the ‘cellist stood to play, something which I’d always thought gave the ensemble an “edge” in readily conveying that very important gestural component of the music, and particularly so with this composer’s work. Such a choreographic rendering of the music visually emphasised parameters of movement and stasis, energy and stillness, strength and grace, all of which were components of this extraordinary piece. Rather than a distraction, I’ve always found the group’s responsive physicality “added value” in my appreciation of how they interpret the notes – and in terms of involvement and commitment they never disappoint, and certainly didn’t here.

Of course, the fugue’s revolutionary explorations, exhortations, propositions and implications made the perfect foil for the work the composer himself indicated was his ”favourite” of all his quartets, the C-sharp Minor Op.131, which we heard after the interval. Completed in 1826, it was one of a trio of works which began with the Op.132 “Heiliger Dankgesang” quartet (published out of order), and continued with Op 130 and its “Grosse Fugue” finale, before this one, Op.131, rounded off the group. Beethoven’s very last compositions were one further String Quartet (Op.135) and the aforementioned single “Allegro” movement written for Op.130.

Cast in seven movements which were individually numbered in the score but intended to be played without a break, the first movement of Op.131 was a slowly-evolving fugue described by various commentators in term such as “most melancholy”, “most moving”. “superhuman” and as having “extraordinary profundity”. The NZSQ players caught a distinctive expressive quality with their lines, individual sounds at once warm and spare, and evolving constantly like light, the upper reaches having a radiance as well as an occasional edge, the lower tones sometimes warm, sometimes grainy, refusing to “settle” on a constant state, as if delineating a process rather than a product. The mood brightened with the D-major Allegro molto vivace, the players gently “dancing” the gregarious folk-like theme  until a violin flourish announced the fourth movement, a set of variations marked Andante (ma non troppo e molto expressivo)!

The violins charmingly shared the opening theme, setting the tone of spontaneous creation as the viola joined in, the subsequent episodes appearing wind-blown at times, delivered with a wry grin and a raised eyebrow at others – the players tossed the melody about, their tones engagingly varied, ever leading the ear on, viola and cello teasingly exchanging philosophies, leading the music upwards towards the violins, who at one stage punctuated the swaying rhythms with startling pizzicato notes – but how beguiling were those upwardly gliding amalgams of thirds and solo lines whose highest note transfixed the ensemble’s attention, and brought forth repeated clusters of entranced luminosity! – receding then into chant-like murmurings as the cello grumbled its approval. It was music that beguiled our senses and transported our imaginations to realms seldom visited.

And then, as happened with the concluding moments of the titanic Grosse Fugue, the composer’s sense of fun suddenly energised the ethereal realms, even if the individual flourishes made by each instrument weren’t uniformly note-perfect in some instances – the ensuing accelerandi, and the almost fairground-like processionals brought us back in touch with terra firma via a couple of piquant landing-points. They were mere symbolic gestures, as the cello lost no time in calling us to order for the scherzo!

This had tremendous energy and drive, the ebb and flow nicely controlled without the rhythms being over-regimented – a mixture of precision and flexible spontaneity, with great, stinging pizzicato notes at the transitions, and an ear-catching dynamic variation of the penultimate statement of the main theme – almost like a sotto-voce whisper, and terribly conspiratorial-sounding! – it was almost a Monty Python “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” moment when the sequence returned at the end! The sequences were then broken up into fragments, and the momentums curtailed, the attentions suddenly turned in a new direction, by way of an Adagio quasi un poco andante! One might have thought this would blossom into  another full-blooded slow movement, but we got instead a couple of minutes of exquisitely-voiced expressions of the utmost melancholy and sorrow, something that was then as peremptorily cast aside as it was deeply-felt in sound and concentrated effort!

With the music’s return to C-sharp minor at the finale’s beginning, we were in tonal terms returned by the composer to where we came from – and the playing here vigorously and unequivocally put across the composer’s message telling us to stand steadfast and hold our own, defying our troubles and sorrows.  Not only did the finale share the key of the opening movement but its second subject presented a sterner, more assertive “next-of-kin” thematic version of the work’s opening fugal melody,. The “quick march” of the dotted rhythm shared the argument with flowing solos from the violin and viola, and sequences of running passages without any let-up in the tempo. And the players managed the music’s “resolution” towards C-sharp major at the end with a beautifully-detailed sense of inevitably that afterwards lingered in the mind all the more naturally and profoundly – as would any like kind of journey encompassing similarly vast territories…….

New Zealand String Quartet triumphantly reaches the heights of Beethoven’s Late Quartets

Beethoven string quartets, Concert No 5

Opus 135 in F; Opus 130: Finale in B flat; Opus 132 in A minor

New Zealand String Quartet: Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)

St Peter’s Village Hall, Paekakariki

Wednesday 23 September 7:30pm

Violist Gillian Ansell opened the concert with cheerful and interesting remarks about the significance of Beethoven’s last quartets, written well after the last piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, the Choral Symphony, and the Diabelli Variations.

Quartet in F, Opus 135
This concert included the last that he wrote, Op 135, and the second, written for his patron Prince Galitzin, Op 132 which contains the remarkable Heiliger Dankgesang. In between was the last movement of Op 130, which Beethoven had written after being asked to discard his original last movement and to replace it. The original movement was published separately as the Gross Fuge, Op 133. Op 130 was to be played in the final concert, with that original ‘great fugue’ as its final movement, a practice that I imagine is not very frequent.

While it is common to consider the four movement quartets, Op 127 and Op 135 as generally more conventional than the other three which have more movements, that is only an observation that can be applied to Beethoven. All are incomparable with any string quartets written before or, I believe, after.

So Gillian’s comments suggesting a lightness of spirit can apply somewhat to the other four late quartets. However, considering the state of Beethoven’s health, the singularly rich and humane spirit of the first movement of Opus 135 is astonishing. The players, with their capacity to capture the richness of the Allegretto and even more remarkably, the joyous Vivace that followed, is impossible to reconcile with Beethoven’s state of health and closeness to death (only five months later). The real profundity of musical inspiration arrives with the deeply contemplative Lento assai, third movement, in five flats (D flat major), a fairly remote key. Their playing was a model of restraint and simplicity, with a profundity that’s without self-pity.  The last movement is famous for the inserted words that relate to an argument Beethoven had with a court official about subscription costs that Beethoven expected to be paid. Beethoven declared: Es muss sein, ‘it must be’. The music is laden with heavy bow strokes as well as a distinctive comic touch.

The substituted Finale of Opus 130
Monique Lapins, second violin, spoke articulately about the next piece, the Finale of Op 130, described above. It’s obviously very different from the Grosse Fuge that it replaced, and perhaps doesn’t justify a stand-alone performance. It opens with a series of cheerful downward passages and a charming tune; it’s remarkable in that it’s the very last music that Beethoven wrote – a month or so after Op 135 and just four months before his death. So the substitute finale, in its singularly positive spirit, is hard to believe; though a lightness is there, it’s not hard to hear Beethoven’s defiant determination to sustain his spirit till the end.

Op 130, with its original finale, the Great Fugue, was to be played in the sixth and last concert.

Opus 132, the last for Prince Galitzin
Op 132 was the third and last of the quartets that Beethoven composed for Prince Galitzin, and its middle movement makes it one of the remarkable quartets. This time, the work was the subject of an illuminating commentary from Rolf Gjelsten. It opened quietly, inspiring a stilled and rapt anticipation; but the first movement’s Allegro soon generates a more normal emotion and through repeated changes of mood, holds the attention. It is a very remarkable movement which has attracted a great deal of scholarly analysis. Yet even repeated hearings never seem to exhaust its mysteries; in fact the more one listens and reads analytical studies, the more one has to accept its unorthodox complexity. Its ten minutes is never enough time to assimilate its musical character; nor do repeated hearings.

Unconventionally, the second movement is a minuet and trio and it’s in A major instead of the opening key of A minor: and its shape created more repetition of the musical ideas. Superficially the second movement is conventional, but its very repetition and its uncanny departures from the expected, like the heavy thrusting of the cello half way through, insist on its uniqueness.

The middle movement, the remarkable Heiliger Dankgesang, is about a quarter hour long, and the extreme slowness – molto adagio – makes its leisureliness inevitable, yet never seeming excessive. Certainly, the quartet’s performance generated an extraordinary, mysterious spirit, at times, while the intervening Andante passages reawakened a slightly more normal musical awareness. The four players created a spell-binding intensity that could only be described as uniquely sublime.

The last two movements are rather more ‘normal’. The 4th, Alla Marcia – Piu allegro – attacca, is a dance-like episode that doesn’t fail to demonstrate the quartet’s persistently remarkable character. Though nothing is as unexpected (to those who didn’t know the work) as the half-minute of tumbling, semi-chaotic sounds, Piu allegro, that finish the movement, and could almost be heard as the start of the last movement, Allegro appassionato, triple time. Though the last movement would be heard as a remarkable episode in almost any other quartet, in comparison to the first and third movements it is almost conventional.

No doubt there are always listeners who look for details and stylistic aspects to find fault with, but we happen to have, in Wellington, a quartet that has all the musical skills and comprehension needed to illuminate what even the most hypercritical listeners expect and find fulfilling. This was a wonderful performance.


Beethoven’s creative “quartet-journey” superbly delineated by the NZSQ at St.John’s in the City, Wellington

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
UNIVERSAL – Beethoven 250th Anniversary
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets :
Op. 18 No. 6 in B-flat Major(1801)
Op.95 in F Minor “Serioso” (1814)
Op.127 in E-flat Major (1825)

The New Zealand String Quartet
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

St.John’s in the City Presbyterian Church
Willis St., Wellington

Saturday 19th September 2020

Continuing its “tour” of Wellington venues by way of bringing to us all of Beethoven’s String Quartets during his 250th anniversary year, the New Zealand String Quartet gave the latest instalment of its traversal in the austerely beautiful Willis St. Church of St.John’s in the City. Something about the venue suited the music on this occasion even more than usual, to my mind, the refinement and directness of certain of Beethoven’s sequences mirroring the church’s relatively undecorated aspect, and other, more warm and humanly discursive episodes seeming in accord with the magnificent stained-glass biblical triptych on the rear wall of the nave facing the altar. It was a stimulating and atmospheric space in which to experience this deeply-felt and richly-wrought music, all the more so in performances by the Quartet whose commitment and execution seemed to almost intuitively penetrate to its real substance.

Today’s musical journey began with the composer having reached a kind of apex with the last of his six Op.18 quartets (though there seems to be disagreement as to whether this is in fact the sixth of the set in order of composition, some accounts claiming it to be the fifth), in B-flat Major, completed in 1800 and published the following year. Having accepted the challenge of writing quartets and thus “competing” with his idols Mozart and Haydn, the young Beethoven in the course of writing these works seemed to “re-invent himself” as a composer, having already made his mark as a performer. And in the process of doing so he sought to escape from those same influences that had at first inspired him to achieve something new – of all the Op.18 quartets this is the one that most clearly indicates a “new way forward”. Driven partly by the desperation of knowing that he was going deaf and that his days as a performer were numbered, and partly by his desire to overcome these difficulties and “conquer through music”, he produced a work which both saluted and farewelled each of his great exemplars, and strode forth into an age he was to make his own.

A jaunty country walk began the opening movement, Haydn-like in its al fresco, bucolic quality, texturally varied in its sharing of the thematic material, and dynamic in its combination of middle-voice trajectories and dovetailed linear thrusts from all the instruments. I was swept along by the performance’s initial brio, and found myself enjoying the digging-in with the players’ efforts by way of relishing the development’s major-minor alternations and lovely duetting sequences, and the occasionally madcapped moment in the otherwise “straightforward” (as the programme note commented) recapitulation – I did enjoy the players’ revisiting of the opening “laughter holding both his sides” gesture just before the movement’s end. The slow movement trod a graceful Mozartean measure at the outset, the mood of the music then abruptly sombre and Shakespearean, denoting a change in thinking, in fortune, in awareness. However, the opening’s return found the violin’s melody richly and engagingly decorated by the others, and even a brief return of the “Ghost” music was but a “blip” on the horizons, the concluding phrases farewelled with graceful pizzicati.

What a tour de force here was the syncopated scherzo, something of a great-uncle to the yet-unborn Op.135 Scherzo, the players tossing off the phrases with the utmost nonchalance, the first violin even finding all the time in the world to comment on the “chaos of delight” with an extended trill! Just as vertiginous was the Trio, the rapid scamperings interrupted by a droll minor-key version of the previous roller-coaster ride, before starting off again! – a fabulous performance!  And then the players made the most of the finale, the beginning’s serene chordings torpedoed by strident harmonies, again reminiscent of the Op.135 Quartet’s finale, the composer’s marking of the score “La Malinconia” given resonance – when suddenly there was a babbling brook of a tune gaily and garrulously skipping ahead of us and leading us on, beautifully energised, making the return to the “La Malinconia” mood all the more unexpected, and its eventual dismissal all the more hair-raising when the players at the end turned the babbling brook into a torrent, one carrying off everything in its wake!

Beethoven himself regarded the next work on today’s programme (Op.95 in F Minor) as “special”, and was even somewhat protective towards it, stating in a letter to a friend that the quartet was “for connoisseurs, and not to be played in public”. His own name for the work, “Serioso”, appears in the tempo markings for the third movement, but it could equally apply to the whole quartet – it sounds rigorous, direct, concentrated and challenging, and the NZSQ delivered its four movements as such. The work’s famous opening, not unlike the Fifth Symphony’s in effect, began a kind of “chain reaction” of outbursts, followed by considerations, and then more outbursts, a tightly-knit mini-drama with an abruptly-muted ending. The ‘cello began the second movement in stepwise fashion, the other instruments sighing over the music’s halting progress. I was drawn into the players’ realisation of a ghostly, phantom-like fugue, one which seemed to endlessly descend in MC Escher-like fashion, and continue the process until rescued and led back into the light by the violin, the players rhapsodising on the movement’s theme most beguilingly.

Out of an unresolved cadence burst the scherzo – again, a terse figure at the outset, its dotted rhythm dominating the trajectories, here given enormous thrust by the players, most engaging and involving! The instruments delivered the all-pervading figure in pairs, the violins alternating with the pair of lower strings, hurling their voices across the spaces for dramatic effect – I loved the accelerating oompah-effect whenever all four instruments drove each sequence downwards and “bounced” upwards again! In the midst of the tumult was a lullaby, the players tossing their phrases gently from one to another, the brief dream scattered by the scherzo’s reappearance!  How warily the players then began the finale, feeling their way at the outset, and sighing with mortification in a manner that suggested a full-scale lament was brewing – when suddenly the music “felt” its true purpose and drove forwards, the musicians imbuing us with a similar surge of expectation! Somewhat like a highly-charged cradle-song, the lines raced forwards, pausing for breath, only to redouble their energies with headlong scamperings that suggested an amalgam of relief and exhilaration – or was that just US feeling like that?

Rolf Gjelsten and Monique Lapins having respectively “opened up” for us something of the world of each of the first-half’s quartets earlier, Helene Pohl then similarly talked about the context of the Op.127 quartet which was to follow – a world of inward sound and light unlike anything we had heard previously. It was a work in the “heroic” key of E-flat but the “triumph” of such a gesture was interlaced with questions posed by the composer regarding the beyond and its mysteries. With this in mind we settled into the sounds from those first richly-wrought chords, as ready as we could ever be for whatever realms awaited.

We felt immediately drawn in, the sounds having a “shared” quality, emphasised by the chords’ more brightly-lit repetition, the music taking its time through sequenced passages, the players bringing out various individual lines and exchanges (I particularly enjoyed violist Gillian Ansell’s “smoky” tones in some lyrical passagework towards the movement’s end). The Adagio’s opening was scarcely breathed (compared by the writer of the excellent programme notes to the serene aspect of the Benedictus from the Missa Solemnis written a few years earlier), the playing as tender and “charged” as one could wish for, the first variation elaborating the lines as naturally as the opening-up of a sprinking of flowers in the sunlight, and the ensuing jog-trot sequence animating the impulses to delicious choreographic effect on the part of the musicians (with violinist Monique Lapins, whom I was sitting directly opposite to, particularly terpsichordean in her movements!), and not unlike Schoenberg’s cabaret-like “Die eiserne Brigade” music! – from this, the mood returned to the opening, the players’ voicings then suddenly to die for, imbuing the sounds with pure emotion! The variations continued their ebb and flow between pairs of instruments, until reaching a point where the music seems to denote the movement of time itself, or else a human heartbeat, something proclaiming the essence of our existence.

A few pizzicato “plucks” and the players were off astride the Scherzo, holding onto the music’s obsessively dotted rhythms on their discursive journeyings, light-as-feather manoeuverings alternating with robust “bouncings” – the Trio seemed here to suddenly fall out of the sky, pick itself up and join hands with all of us for a “Round Dance”, then disappear as quickly as it arrived (though making a brief reappearance at the movement’s end). A “call to arms” brought the finale’s flowing gait into play, a busy, chatty tune that contrasted markedly with the second theme, strong and abrupt and brooking no nonsense! The “working out” used all of these elements, a coming-together which quartet leader Helene Pohl had earlier characterised as a kind of “party”! – but what a gorgeous effect the musicians created with their deliciously “swooning” lead-in to this, the work’s “epilogue”, a grand, almost ceremonial, summation of what had gone before, concluded with suitably majestic chordings!

Berlioz wrote in 1830 on hearing a rehearsal of this quartet in Paris, “God willed that there should be a man as great as Beethoven, and that we should be allowed to contemplate him” – to which sentiments one here today could add that of gratitude to the New Zealand String Quartet for bringing to us such vibrant performances of his works!